The Broadcast Battleground of the 2012 Emmy Awards

September 23, 2012
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At the bottom of the screen during the Emmy Awards telecast, a chyron would occasionally pop us to inform viewer that a particular actor or actress was only a short time away. It turned into a fun game for me, trying to figure out the logic behind each individual selected. Melissa McCarthy’s breakout performance in Bridesmaids and Emmy win last year certainly made her a logical choice, while Ricky Gervais’ notorious history with award shows earned him a spot in the rotation.

At the end of the day, though, they highlight the fact that the Emmy Awards are a broadcast event, and therefore must be concerned with keeping the attention of broadcast viewers. And in the current televisual age, that means organizing the show in ways that emphasize what wide audiences are actually watching or interested in. Accordingly, the emphasis on presenters (as opposed to what they were presenting) in these on-screen prompts fits in with a larger strategy of making a niche celebration of television production culture seem like a celebration of capital-T Television that viewers across the nation can relate to.

The challenge for Emmy producers is that they are forced to complete this same task with different nominees every year, which requires certain adjustments. In recent years, after the era of The West Wing and The Sopranos, the drama categories have been dominated by shows that most people aren’t watching, with the little-watched Mad Men winning four straight Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series and Lead Actor seeing similar domination from Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston. By comparison, comedy has exited a dark period where niche or low-rated comedies like The Office and 30 Rock walked away with the trophy, as Modern Family offers a populist hit with comparatively mass appeal (although its total viewer numbers pale in comparison to the sitcoms dominating its category a decade earlier).

Accordingly, comedy categories opened and closed this year’s Emmy telecast, despite the fact that the only interesting story was happening in the dramatic categories. For those who actually follow the awards, and for whom the evening is a suspenseful reveal after months of speculation, Homeland’s win for Outstanding Drama Series, Lead Actor and Actress in a Drama Series, and Writing in a Drama Series was the story of the evening. Not only does it dethrone Mad Men after its four-year reign and mark the first time since 1993 that a series has won Series, Lead Actor and Lead Actress in a single year, but it also signals Showtime’s first ever Series win at the Emmys, becoming only the third cable channel to win a Series award (after HBO and AMC). But Homeland draws a small audience, limited by access to premium cable, and so Modern Family’s predictable win for Outstanding Comedy Series closes the evening as a celebration of television that people watching have actually seen (and, not entirely coincidentally, television on the broadcast network that happened to be airing this year’s Emmy telecast).

This seems to fly in the face of the prevailing discourse surrounding the current era of television, which is often heralded for its serious dramatic programming—most often on cable—by those who suggest we are in a golden age (a notion Damian Lewis echoed in his speech, making me reach for the bingo card I drew into the back of my copy of Newman and Levine’s Legitimating Television); However, while the very existence of the Emmys as a judgment of art would seem to offer proof of this claim, the Emmys telecast can actively work against the exclusivity of those definitions. Although no broadcast series made it into the Outstanding Drama Series category, eight made it into the montage of eighteen series that marked the beginning of the drama period of the telecast, only one of which was nominated for a single award given out during that telecast (CBS’ The Good Wife, with three acting nominations). And yet House, Once Upon a Time, Grey’s Anatomy, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Revenge, Smash, and NCIS all have something in common: more people have probably seen them than any of the series nominated for Outstanding Drama Series. Heck, more people watch NCIS weekly than the six shows nominated in that category combined.

These montages may not seem as important as the winners, and they certainly aren’t likely to be part of news reports or historical records regarding the telecast, but they capture a different way in which the Emmys serve as a discursive space for the contested meaning of television quality. Although we normally think about winners and losers, or even nominees, as the primary space in which the Emmys reinforce or establish certain hierarchies of quality, we also need to think about the broadcast itself as a push back against those hierarchies, particularly given the ongoing battle between the broadcast networks and the Academy regarding the Movie/Miniseries category (which privileges HBO, who won four out of seven awards in the category, with the other two going to basic cable programs). Next year, the Supporting Acting categories for Movies and Miniseries are disappearing, leaving more time for genres that remain part of the industrial structures of broadcast television, and therefore genres that the networks paying to air the awards are more invested in.

In other words, it wasn’t a coincidence that only three of the eighteen series featured during the broadcast’s comedy montage were from cable networks (and all of them from HBO, with no representation from nominated series from Showtime—Nurse Jackie—and FX—Louie—within the evening’s broadcast). It was a statement that comedy is and always will be a broadcast genre, even though they could have easily selected another six great cable comedies to achieve the relative parity they sought in drama series. Like the choice to lead and close with comedy, it’s the broadcast networks’ way of marking their territory: while the battle for drama might seem lost, the war for comedy wages on, and it will be fought in the editing bays and production booths as much as in the voting ballots.


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One Response to “ The Broadcast Battleground of the 2012 Emmy Awards ”

  1. JLR on September 28, 2012 at 1:11 PM

    Amazing. It was so symptomatic! I would LOVE to see your “quality television” bingo card.

    [Antenna, why don’t you have Disqus comments?!]